Co-Author with Your Elderly Parent: Do Yourself A Favor

“Maybe it’s true that life begins at fifty.
But everything else starts to wear out,
fall out, or spread out.”
― Phyllis Diller

My mother is 93 years old and she lives over 181 miles away from me. To make matters worse, the gap between the two of us is crooked, mountainous, and a slow-go, but because mom and I are writing a book together, we are able to bridge the gap.  This morning, my mom wrote a chapter for our book on her computer in Notebook. But then, she couldn’t figure out how to send the document to me. I have told her that she needs to write her chapters in Microsoft Word, but she doesn’t have Word. Now, we are trying to figure out how to get her chapter 181 miles away–to me. These are the challenges of life over 70. My mom doesn’t know anything about drag-selecting text and copy-pasting, and I don’t know how to help her know.

You see, my mom is old now, but then again, I’m not all that young either.

“You know you’re getting old when you stoop to tie your shoelaces
and wonder what else you could do while you’re down there.”
― George Burns

It was at least 20 years ago that my mom and I began co-authoring a book about her life. I was living over 1,000 miles away then–I was living on the Jersey Shore. I definitely felt the need to throw out a lifeline then. It is jarring that at that time, my mother was about the age that I am now. Wow! That serves as a sort of alarm bell for me.

Image may contain: 1 person, closeup

The book my mom and I are co-authoring will be about my mom’s life when she was a young child., and although chapter books for children don’t sell well anymore, this will probably be a series of chapter books. I’ll say more about this later, but I plan for the books to be semi-chapter and semi-picture books. I plan to fill them with my art that tends to speak about both my own childhood in the rural South, as well as my mom’s.


Jacki Kellum Illustration

Jacki Kellum Illustration

My mother’s family was poor, and they barely survived the Great Depression. In fact, if they hadn’t kept a vegetable garden and a few animals, they probably would have starved. But things for my mom went from bad to simply horrible when she was 9, and her own mother died, After that, mom essentially became a little waif.

Just yesterday, my mom said to me, “Why aren’t you writing this book about your life?”

I chuckled and responded: “My story is a horror tale. It would light kids’ hair on fire, and it would scar them for life.”

The truth is that my mother’s story hurts me so very badly that it is not an easy tale to tell either. 

But unlike many people, my mother has never been angry or even sad about her childhood. By the time that she was 9, she had become a tough little survivor, and her attitude has inspired me greatly. In fact, my mother has inspired many people. Oddly, however, until about 20 years ago, I had only heard snippets here and there about her life as a child. That was when I began sending mom a series of questions by email. I was trying to get more of the details of her life.

My mother has always liked writing, and this new and mutual project between us gave both my mother and me a certain kind of new energy, as well as a renewed bond. When I was a child, mom wrote short stories, and a couple of her stories were published in magazines. When I asked mom about her childhood, she obliged me by writing some fairly detailed responses to my questions. In doing so, some of the holes were patched in my understanding of her life. I was writing on a different blog then, and I published my mother’s emails there. Invariably, hundreds of people liked those tales. [I hate to admit it, but my mom’s tales got more likes than my own.]  I knew that I needed to find a way to begin pulling her stories together.

I always say that I have flipped through life like George of the Jungle, swinging from miracle to miracle, and I firmly believe that. By sheer miracle, my debut picture book will be published by a Big 5 publisher next year. Because of another miracle, I survived a terrible car crash when I was 20, and I learned to walk again. Because of yet another miracle 30 years later, I managed to rise from the ashes of the house fire that destroyed all of my art and all of my writing to that day. And because of another miracle, I have managed to rebuild my work again. Although life for me tends to pit between the miracles,  I’ve experienced several highs along the way. That being said, I consider it one of my greatest miracles that about 20 years ago, I sent my mother several emails, asking her specific questions about her childhood, and I consider it an even greater miracle that she is still here today [at the age of 93] and that she and I have finally begun the adventure of spinning my mom’s childhood into a tapestry.

Many people my age wonder what they should do for their elderly parents, and I shout the following advice: “Don’t feel sorry for them. Don’t condescend to them in that way. Our elderly parents want to be valued and not pitied.

Give your elderly parents something worthwhile to do.

Better still, do that something with your elderly parents. You may discover, as I have discovered, that both you and your parents still have a lot of living [and learning] left to do.